Google Goggles Coming Soon to iPhone

Back in December of 2009, Google launched Goggles – a mobile image recognition beta application for the Android Operating System. In a presentation Thursday at the Augmented Reality Event in Santa Clara, California, Google project manager Shailesh Nalawadi confirmed that the company’s mobile visual search tool would be making its way to the iPhone “soon.” He also announced that a logical next step for the app in the near future would be to release public APIs for leveraging Google’s technology.

Currently, Android users can take pictures of various objects and Google Goggles will help identify them. Items that Goggles can identify include buildings, bridges, landmarks, bar codes, logos, text, business cards and product info for things like books and DVDs. When asked about an iPhone version of the app during the Q&A after his presentation, Nalawadi admitted, “Yes, we will be coming to the iPhone soon.”

A more interesting announcement, perhaps, is that the company plans to release access to its image recognition technology via APIs by year’s end. “APIs are good and we would love to offer recognition capabilities as APIs eventually,” Nalawadi said. He added that the Goggles team is more concerned at the moment with continuing to develop the app, innovating on features and understanding users’ wants and needs. APIs, he added, are likely a couple quarters away.

Much like the company’s recently released Latitude API that provides location-based services, access to the Goggles technology would allow developers to build visual search and image recognition applications without reinventing the wheel. The downside, however, is being locked into Google’s ecosystem and technology – a fate some developers would rather avoid. The benefit of using Google APIs, especially for apps requiring server work like Goggles, is the back-end cloud infrastructure that Google provides for the developers.

The back-end is where Nalawadi says Google can provide the best service. As he pointed out to me when I caught up with him following his presentation, the Goggles project is not so much a venture into the field of augmented reality as it is an extension of Google’s search engine capabilities and personalization technologies. Nalawadi used a famous Wayne Gretzky quote to explain that Google isn’t skating to where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be.

Google knows its strength is in managing large amounts to data and providing useful search results, and it intends to bring that power to the AR field. As the technology matures, AR applications will become inundated with data, and not all of it will be relevant to the user. Nalawadi says that as Google learns more about individual users, it will be able to help filter out the irrelevant AR search results. When I hold my phone up, he says, Google will filter out baby and toddler-related results because it knows I’m not a parent.

Other features Nalawadi says are on the Goggles road map include enhanced recognition capabilities, an AR-style user interface, as well as using computer vision to determine location and audio visual search. Computing location based on visual data is a big step forward for augmented reality and a hot topic at this week’s conference. Relying on GPS and compass data is limited by the accuracy of the sensors in the phone, and Google hopes to add it’s visual capabilities to identifying a user’s location. Additionally, Nalawadi says as interfaces move away from keyboards, and even touch, the ability to search using voice commands will be inherently necessary for these types of applications.

A Google Goggles application on the iPhone and complementary APIs are obvious evolutions of the technology and aren’t a surprise, really. It makes sense that Google wants to gather as much visual data from testers of the beta application and expanding to the iPhone and its millions of users is a logical way to grow its install base.

The timing of the app’s move to the iPhone also aligns with the enhanced camera access that has been opened-up in iPhone OS 4.0 – a feature that makes image recognition faster and easier for developers. Goggles would be just the fourth Google-built iPhone app – the other three being Google Mobile, Google Earth and an app for the photo sharing service Panoramio, which Google acquired in 2007.

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